For all those assessing the meaning of Pope Francis’ rise and its implications for one of the world’s most powerful transnational institutions, the pontiff has already offered a warning. “If one has the answers to all the questions,” he said in an August interview with La Civiltà Cattolica that has become a kind of manifesto for his papacy, “that is the proof that God is not with him.”
That delightful rebuke to know-it-alls everywhere provides a clue as to how someone who has held the papal office only since March has already revolutionized – there is no other word – the world’s view of the Catholic Church. At a time when religion has come to seem synonymous with dogmatic certainty and, in the eyes of many secular observers, fundamentalism, here is arguably the most visible religious leader in the world asserting that questions, not answers, can inspire a vibrant faith.
Francis is orthodox, all right. He has reasserted the church’s “clear” teaching on abortion and said he could not do otherwise. “I am a son of the church,” he explained. But he is an orthodox searcher who wants to share the journey with anyone of goodwill (including nonbelievers) who takes the quest for truth seriously. “Who am I to judge?” he replied when asked his view of those who are gay. For so many, judging is what a pope does for a living. Francis did not change church doctrine with his statement. He merely changed virtually everything about how we see the role of a supreme pontiff.
A few things are already obvious. As the first non-European pope in more than 1,200 years and the first from the global south, Francis speaks in decidedly different accents about capitalism and globalization. It should not be forgotten that both John Paul II and Benedict XVI were highly critical of unbridled capitalism. But they still discussed the market in terms largely set by the debates in Europe and the United States. The economic and political visions of the pope from Poland and the pope from Germany could not help but be shaped by their reactions to the bitter experience of Soviet communism. So their strong calls for social justice were always tempered by warnings against the politics of class struggle.
Francis is necessarily more radical in his preaching about the poor and the shortcomings of global capitalism because he addresses the rest of the world from the perspective of the south and from the experience of those suffering from deep poverty.
Thus has Francis declared: “While the income of a minority is increasing exponentially, that of the majority is crumbling.” Thus has he condemned “an economic system which has at its center an idol called money” and “the dictatorship of an economy which is faceless and lacking any truly humane goal.” Thus has he linked his words with a series of actions eschewing a regal style of living to underscore his commitment to building “a poor church for the poor.”
A pope who sees lifting up the poor and moralizing an unjust economy as primary objectives inevitably views the culture wars that so engage Catholic conservatives, particularly in the United States, as a peculiar rock on which to build the church’s public ministry. This view has brought him criticism from the Catholic right, as he has acknowledged. But putting the culture wars in their place is consistent with a papacy that finds its inspiration outside the ongoing arguments among liberals and traditionalists in the developed world.
“We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. This is not possible,” he said in one of the most widely cited parts of his interview, as published in English in the Jesuit magazine America. “I have not spoken much about these things, and I was reprimanded for that. But when we speak about these issues, we have to talk about them in a context. … The dogmatic and moral teachings of the church are not all equivalent.
“The church’s pastoral ministry,” he went on, “cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently. … We have to find a new balance; otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel.” Francis seems to want to move his church outward, from the nave of a dark cathedral to the bright garden outside its doors.
Again, the pope is not changing church doctrine. But a major change in emphasis itself has profound implications.
Equally profound was his choice to canonize Pope John XXIII, the reformist pope of the Second Vatican Council, alongside Pope John Paul II. It was the unifying act of a superb politician, and it sent a powerful message. It applied to the church itself one of his dicta: “The thing the church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful.”
Rapid sainthood for John Paul II was inevitable, given the widespread devotion to him in many corners of the church, not simply in its conservative wing. But by lifting up John XXIII as well, Francis is telling Catholics to gladly accept his legacy – and the legacy of the council’s embrace of democracy, religious freedom and the centrality of the Catholic laity. If some conservative voices in the church have sought to play down just how important the council was in opening Catholicism to the modern world, Francis is welcoming its dialectical mission: that modernity has lessons to teach Catholics, even as the church should be critical of modernity’s failings.
Much is expected of this pope: serious reform of the Vatican, a substantial decentralization of authority, a definitive reckoning with the pedophilia scandal and, among Western Catholics especially, a broadening of the “opportunities for a stronger presence of women in the church,” as Francis himself has put it.
In global terms, however, here may be the central paradox of his papacy: As the leader of a church that has so long been viewed as dogmatic, hierarchical and traditional, Francis bids to turn himself into a model of a kind of mystical humility that combines a spirit of moderation with intellectual openness and a radical understanding of what the primacy of the spiritual over the material means. Benedict issued a stern warning against a “dictatorship of relativism.” Francis seems worried about something else entirely.
“If the Christian is a restorationist, a legalist, if he wants everything clear and safe, then he will find nothing,” he has said. “Tradition and memory of the past must help us to have the courage to open up new areas to God. Those who today always look for disciplinarian solutions, those who long for an exaggerated doctrinal ‘security,’ those who stubbornly try to recover a past that no longer exists – they have a static and inward-directed view of things. In this way, faith becomes an ideology among other ideologies. I have a dogmatic certainty: God is in every person’s life.”
Thus is his one “dogmatic certainty” – a thoroughly undogmatic universalism more interested in shattering barriers than erecting them. It’s a very new approach to religion in the modern world, rooted in the oldest of doctrines.
E.J. Dionne is a Washington Post columnist, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and professor at the McCourt School of Public Policy at Georgetown University.